Why Sense8 is like nothing else on TV right now

The hit Netflix series is a dizzying, lavish feast that manages to feel epic and intimate at the same time.


Ella Donald

There is a way to watch Sense8, and that is to live it. Take breaks, do anything necessary for survival or return to the real world when it beckons, but dive straight back in when you can. Don’t let your mind wander (not that it will be able to), keep your heart racing and body on its lyrical but pounding wavelength. Let it inhabit you. Indulge in the whole-song montages, and be swept up by its unrivalled ability to produce the most irresistible storm of empathy.

Get lost in the scale, the loud and colourful landmarks from all corners of the world whizzing around you and photographed with such a majesty you’ll feel like immediately booking a world tour. The compulsion to travel the world, exploring its wonders and secrets, makes an interesting point for the show, for it’s not to see what they see. Sense8 is about life beyond the tourist landmarks, the everyday tragedies and challenges comprising life, and the ephemeral commonalities that bind everyone.

In that sense, the world tour the show wants you to take is not just to see what they see, but feel what they feel. The aim of big-budget television in this era of unprecedented competition and scale is to build a world that lives, breathes, and feels boundless to explore over many hours. There has to be streets, houses with people filling them, a sense that a viewer could walk into one at any given moment and into a different life, another community full of rich history. Most shows set out to create a world, but Sense8 doesn’t – it just pulls you into the marvellous, complicated one around you and asks you to take a leap of faith.

For the unacquainted, a map for the land. The plot isn’t overly complicated, at times it’s shockingly relaxed for an era of shrinking episode orders and shows that are thankfully divesting themselves of the dead space the 22 episode standard had. The first season is deceptively easy to explain. Eight people around the world, previously strangers who likely wouldn’t have made eye contact had they somehow impossibly crossed paths, become telepathically connected.

But beyond being able to speak and travel to each other, their connection is much more intimate and ephemeral – they’re able to inhabit the other person, experiencing not only every thought and feeling, every piece of personal history that influences it. It’s not just a simple matter of knowing what’s going on, it’s absolutely everything happening in the background too, whether that’s a memory of a parade attended as a child or the birth of a younger sibling.

Each of the group of Sensates (known as a cluster) have their own baggage when going through this miraculous change. Kala, a chemist from India, is struggling with familial convention against what she desires. Lito, a famous action star in Mexico, is closeted. Nomi, a hacker in San Francisco, faces bigotry from both her family and community. Will is a Chicago policeman haunted by something he experienced as a child, similar to career criminal Wolfgang in Berlin, and Nairobi bus driver Capheus. Sun, eldest child of the head of a powerful corporation, struggles with sexism; and Riley, a DJ from Iceland, is running away from shattering trauma.

If it sounds like a large-scale experiment in radical empathy, that assessment is spot-on. Inclusion is missing from all of the characters’ lives in different ways, loneliness all affects them in some way and the sudden appearance of seven other counterparts is initially confusing (Kala, a devout Hindu, thinks it’s the gods playing tricks on her) before being comforting.

In this way, the relaxed pace of the proceedings in season one punctuated by orgies and dance scenes is not dead space but time to create those relationships, the connections needed for the ultimately quieter second season (currently on Netflix). The questions swirling around the Sensates discovering and exploring their identities formed the first twelve outings, journeying dreamily and disbelievingly from London to Nairobi to Seoul in a single scene and unfurling the tapestry for the show to build itself on. It was only asked what exactly had happened, that question getting larger and larger as there were more chases and musical montages and orgies piling on top of each other, asking more questions than answering.

In that sense, season two is quieter. There’s still the radical exhibitions of emotion, the indulgent whole-song stretches and extended romantic interludes that other shows would divest for being not crucial to advancing plot. Season two leaves questions, the ending the largest of them all, but answers more. There’s the how and the why to balance the emotion and the intellect, the mechanics with the uncontrollable that makes the momentum more insistent.

But if there was a criticism levelled at the show in season one that it’s even more intent on rectifying in season two, it’s what some perceived as touristy voyeurism. The show’s wide-eyed optimism at the potential for connectivity was perceived to be short-sighted and biased, ultimately glossing over intricacies that define individuals and cultures. But in order for that sort of voyeurism to exist there has to be some air of superiority, some sort of distance exerted between viewer (and hence, Sensate) and the world.

That simply doesn’t exist here. When the Wachowskis (this season, only Lana is at the helm) point their cinematic lens at the world, it is overwhelming. Netflix content mostly feels like something that could be achieved on cable television with a ballooned budget, not really considering what it means to make a global show. Sense8, however, feels staggeringly global in a way that wouldn’t survive on something constrained by geography.

Other shows would get caught up in self importance, the deceptive enormity of unity. However, Sense8 realises the fundamental – unity is not a grand or radical idea and this is not the first cultural product to make a case for it, nor does it need an imagined universe. It’s something that can be achieved by anyone. While the show, which filmed on every content excepting Antarctica and Australia in an eight month-long shoot for season two, feels staggering in scale, what feels the most epic about it is the simplest of things – the feeling of being alive. Sense8 rarely offers a more visceral rush than when it is not about fighting and chasing, but simply talking and dreaming.

Season two reveals that the Sensates are another species, with more evolved instincts than Homo sapiens that are evident in their exceptional abilities, but what it does with this development no matter the small way in which it does it is the most surprising. Riley, on the run, meets her dad at a cafe in Amsterdam to pick up some supplies. He doesn’t know what has happened to his daughter, the miraculous connection she instantly obtained with strangers from around the world. However, he can immediately tell something is wrong, and tries to coax it out of her to no avail. Why? Because he knows Riley so intimately, that he doesn’t need to possess abilities different from you or me to tell something is amiss.

It’s a moment of deceptive simplicity, and one that defines what makes the show so eminently loveable. One doesn’t need to be a Sensate to detect emotion, to know the memories that lurk behind thoughts and actions that forge deep empathetic bonds across the impossible. No, one needs to just sit, relax, and talk. The Sensates are not superior to humans, purely more attuned. Eventually, you will feel what they feel. All you need to do is take the first step. Walk into the complicated world around you, and the rest will unfurl before your eyes.

Published 28 May 2017

Tags: Netflix

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